As much as we’d love all of our relationships to be empowering and healthy and fulfilling, that’s not always the reality. Dr. Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT, tells us, "Like the song says, breaking up is hard to do, but not impossible. Irreconcilable differences do not go away on their own. Turning a blind eye to what could possibly go wrong doesn’t protect either of you going forward."
Sometimes, a relationship has to end on your terms (like if it’s toxic—more on that later) while other times, it’s not exactly up to you (like if your partner decides to end things). Either way, here’s everything you need to know about how to let go of someone.
Meet the Expert
Dr. Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT, is a clinician, researcher, teacher and a developer of the Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy® (PACT). He's also the author of In Each Other's Care: A Guide to the Most Common Relationship Conflicts and How to Work Through Them.
10 Ways to Let Go of Someone
1. Decide Whether the Relationship Is Worth It
If it feels like choosing to end a relationship is hard, that's because your brain, once it forms an attachment to another person, doesn't want to break that attachment. "The attachment bond that humans form is a biological mandate to stick together—a feature in most cases, and a bug and other instances such as when we should separate or break up," Tatkin explains. "Don’t confuse the attachment biology for love. It may feel like love but it actually isn’t. It’s a very primitive existential threat going all the way back to infancy with our most primary attachment figure. [It] can feel like we are dying or will die if the relationship ends," but sometimes it's what's best, end of story.
Is the relationship worth it? This is not an easy question, or one that should be taken lightly. But at the end of the day, is this person right for you? Keep in mind, there is no perfect partner. Humans are imperfect and that’s OK! The question isn’t, “Are they perfect?” The question is, “Are we good for each other?” Clearly every relationship is different, but if you think gaslighting is in play, it’s always worth a check-in. If you’re experiencing gaslighting at work, it might be time to look for another job. If a friend is gaslighting you, it might be time to move on from that friendship. If the person gaslighting you is a family member or someone you’re in a romantic relationship with, it can be trickier to make a clean break.
2. Have a Conversation
After evaluating your relationship—maybe even cranking out a good ole’ pros and cons list—it may be worthwhile to have a conversation with the other party. Often, disconnections happen in relationships simply because there’s a lack of communication. Try to sit them down, ask some uncomfortable questions and see how they receive your concerns. If they deflect, dismiss or get extra defensive, then you know the next move. If, however, they’re willing to work through the kinks, then you may have a change of heart.
3. Cut Off Contact
You’ll never be able to heal if you keep a person—especially a toxic person—close to you. Delete their phone number and email address and unfollow them on all social media. This will especially come in handy if, during a moment of weakness, you’re tempted to reach out again.
4. Accept That You’re Only in Control of Your Own Actions
Chances are, the person you’re cutting out of your life is an adult and can therefore think and act for themselves. Psychotherapist, professor and blogger Ilene S. Cohen, Ph.D. writes, “You can’t change another person, so don’t waste your time and energy trying. I think this is the biggest factor that pushes people to hold onto unhelpful behaviors, like the need to please. We think, ‘If only I do everything for everyone, they’ll never get mad at me.’ Wrong!”
5. Lean on Friends and Family
Having other people to confide in is crucial. In addition to acting as a sounding board, a friend or family member is an unbiased third party who can reality check the situation and remind you that what you’re feeling isn’t “crazy” or “exaggerated.”
6. Trust the Process
Letting go of a relationship can be painful, but it’s important to understand that whatever short-term stress or anguish you’re feeling will be worth it in the long run. Cohen adds, “We must accept the person we are in this moment and the way other people are, too. As time goes on, we continue to learn that things don’t always go as planned—actually, they pretty much never do. And that’s OK: If you become aware of yourself and your part of your relationships, they will improve; however, you may also have to accept facts about certain people in your life.” Don’t put pressure on yourself to heal overnight, whether you’ve ended a relationship or someone else has. According to a 2007 study published in The Journal of Positive Psychology, most people are able to bounce back from a breakup in less than three months. Researchers looked at 155 participants who had gone through breakups in the past six months (they had been in relationships of different lengths of time, and were a mix of dumpers and dumpees). What they found was that 71 percent of them started to feel much better at the 11-week mark. Relationship expert and dating coach Samantha Jayne agrees. “Let yourself grieve, cry, talk about it and let it all out but set a time limit,” she says. Give it a few months, she advises and then move on and get back out there (if that’s what you want). And how are you supposed to do that? “To help you move on, cut off contact, stop staring at your phone and avoid cyberstalking. Use this time to look at your relationship and ask yourself what are the positive learnings out of this.
7. Prioritize Self-Care
The dissolvement of a relationship can take a huge toll on your mental health. So especially if you’re coming from a gaslighting situation, self-care is paramount. By focusing on yourself, you’ll feel more capable of standing up for yourself and dealing with all the challenges life is throwing at you. How do you prioritize self-care after the end of a relationship? Tatkin says, "Listen to calming podcasts or audiobooks for getting to sleep at night. Take hot baths, go for long walks in nature and talk to yourself in third person. Look for opportunities to help others and try to remain engaged with people. Stay hydrated and be good to your inner child self that may never understand why the relationship ended, because for that child, there is no higher reasoning that will comfort that part of you." From writing gratitude lists to watching motivational TED Talks, here are dozens of super-simple ways to practice self-care.
8. Reframe Your Definition of Forgiveness
It’s easy to say: “I can’t forgive them because they haven’t expressed remorse. If they apologized, we’d be all good.” But that’s where you need to flip your definition of forgiveness and think of it as a gift to yourself as opposed to for your friend. If you forgive a person privately in your heart—especially if you know it’s not possible to turn the other person over to your side—it’s healthier for you. The advice New York City-based psychotherapist Sarah Saffian, L.C.S.W. M.F.A. gives her clients? Write a letter that you won’t send and use that as a tool to find the words to express yourself. What made you angry? Why are you still angry? Spell out what it will take for you to care less? Per Saffian, you can’t switch off feelings, but holding onto them gives the other person too much power. Writing a letter is an act of letting go.
9. Rebound with Caution
Don't be afraid to make like Aaliyah and “dust yourself off and try again,” but only when you’re ready. A Queens College study found that people who rebounded reported higher self-esteem and confidence, plus were not as hung up on their ex. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you should sign up for Tinder the day after your split. “Use this break as an opportunity to fall in love with yourself. When you feel complete on your own is when you're ready to get out there and meet someone,” says Jayne. A bit New Agey, maybe, but sound advice nonetheless.
10. Seek Professional Help
Some relationships are easier to leave than others, and romantic relationships are one of the tougher ones. If you suspect leaving your partner won’t be as straightforward as cutting off contact, seek out the help of a licensed therapist—specifically someone who specializes in relationship therapy—who can help you define what you’re going through and help you get past it. Depending on the severity of your situation, you can also call the National Abuse Hotline at 800-799-7233 for urgent help.
7 Signs It Might Be Time to Let Go
1. You Feel Anxious When You Aren’t Together
When you’ve spent a few hours away from your partner, you find yourself checking your phone, having trouble making decisions on your own and worrying that something’s going to go wrong. While you might have initially thought that this is a reason you should be together (everything’s so much better when it’s just the two of you, cuddling on the couch), this isn’t the case, says Jill P. Weber, Ph.D. If you’re constantly second-guessing yourself, it could be a sign that your friend or partner has a hold on your life—and the decisions you make—in a toxic way.
2. You Don’t Feel Like Yourself
A healthy relationship should bring out the very best in you. When you and your friend or partner go out together, you should feel like your confident, gorgeous and carefree self, not jealous, insecure or ignored. If you’ve been feeling worse off when you’re with this person, there may be some toxic stuff going on.
3. You’re Giving Way More Than You’re Taking
We don’t mean material stuff and grand gestures, like roses and truffles. It’s more about the thoughtful little things, like rubbing your back without being asked, taking the time to ask about your day or picking up your favorite ice cream at the grocery store—just because. If you’re the only one going out of your way to do these special things for your partner and they never reciprocate or return the gesture (especially if you’ve already communicated that this is something you’d like), it might be time to give the relationship a closer look.
4. You and Your Partner Keep Score
“The ‘keeping score’ phenomenon is when someone you’re dating continues to blame you for past mistakes you made in the relationship,” explains Mark Manson, author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. Once you’ve resolved an issue, it’s an extremely toxic habit to unearth the same argument again and again, with the intention of one-upping (or worse, embarrassing) your spouse. For example, let’s say you went out with your friends last summer, had three too many Aperol spritzes and accidentally broke a lamp. If you’ve already talked it out and apologized, there’s no reason for your spouse to continually bring it up every time you and your friends have a drinks date.
5. You Suspect Your Partner Is Gaslighting You
A common reason you might want to let go of a relationship is if you suspect you’re being gaslighted. Though it can take many different forms, at its core, gaslighting is a communication technique in which someone causes you to question your own version of past events. Most times, it’s meant to make you feel like you’re losing your grip on reality. In its milder forms, gaslighting creates an unequal power dynamic in a relationship. But at its worst, gaslighting can actually be considered a form of mind-control and psychological abuse. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, there are five distinct gaslighting techniques:
Withholding: The abusive partner pretends not to understand or refuses to listen. Ex. “I don’t want to hear this again,” or “You’re trying to confuse me.”
Countering: The abusive partner questions the victim’s memory of events, even when the victim remembers them accurately. Ex. “You’re wrong, you never remember things correctly.”
Blocking/Diverting: The abusive partner changes the subject and/or questions the victim’s thoughts. Ex. “Is that another crazy idea you got from [friend/family member]?” or “You’re imagining things.”
Trivializing: The abusive partner makes the victim’s needs or feelings seem unimportant. Ex. “You’re going to get angry over a little thing like that?” or “You’re too sensitive.”
Forgetting/Denial: The abusive partner pretends to have forgotten what actually occurred or denies things like promises made to the victim. Ex. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” or “You’re just making stuff up.
6. You Make Too Many Excuses for Them
If you find yourself constantly having to defend your partner’s actions (or inactions) to your friends and family, your loved ones may be onto something. If your significant other doesn’t make the effort to show up for you, help around the house or simply make the effort to meet your needs—hello, weaponized incompetence—yet you find a way to consistently justify their behavior, it may be time to reevaluate the relationship.
7. You Want Different Things
Tatkin tells us, "A very good reason to break up is that the two of you are pointing in different directions. In terms of Big Ticket items, you do not agree and you want different things—by Big Ticket item, I mean, one person wants polyamory and the other person wants monogamy, one person wants children and the other does not or one partner cannot live in the country and must live in the city, while the other partner feels exactly the opposite. These are called deal-breakers. And unless and until partners can resolve them, deal-breakers do not go away and they eventually cause big problems."
Sometimes things just end, not because the relationship is bad, but because you and your partner are no longer on the same page. Perhaps your goals in life have changed, maybe they’re not keen on taking the relationship to the next level or you simply feel like the relationship has run its course. Whatever the reason may be, if you feel like you can’t progress, it’s time to let go.